Sjöfn HiFi (the clue) loudspeaker

I was sitting in my high chair, eating strained peas. My father was walking around the kitchen with a wooden box in one hand and a cord with a plug in the other. The box and the cord were attached to each other. I was inspired to utter my first actual sentence: "Plug it in over there!" Moments later, a man with a disturbing voice began squawking from inside the wooden box. It was a radio. Schnapps, our dachshund, barked angrily. I started to cry. Ever since, I've been charmed, fascinated, and mostly annoyed by wooden boxes that talk to me.

At the 2014 Capital Audiofest (July 24–27), I listened to nearly 40 different stereo systems in three days. Squawking boxes everywhere! Only a few jumped out of the noisy swirl as sounding rich and musical. One of those was Sjöfn HiFi's (the clue)™. I introduced myself, and sat smiling as Sjöfn's Lars Erickson played music and explained the thinking behind the new speaker, hereafter referred to as The Clue.

Erickson described The Clues as "affordable full-range speakers" and "affordable state-of-the-art monitors." He said also that, because of The Clue's recommended near-wall placement, they are "wife friendly." I told him I liked what I was hearing and asked if I could review a pair. As I left, he piped up: "So, Herb, what's your favorite small loudspeaker?"

"Right now, it's the KEF LS50," I said, then added that I owned and loved the Totem Model One Signatures and a nice pair of Rogers LS3/5As.

He laughed. "This is going to be easy—The Clue will trounce all of those."

Strong words, I thought, especially when you're talking about a nondescript, generic-looking, made-in-the-US, 87dB-sensitive, wood-veneered box measuring 13.9" high by 7.9" wide by 10.9" deep and costing only $999/pair when sold direct from Sjöfn's website—boxes so anonymous they don't even have logos, nameplates, or serial numbers. What is not so anonymous about The Clue is how Sjöfn HiFi's chief designer, Jim Croft, seems to have rediscovered a bit of lost wisdom and used it to wring almost 10 octaves from a diminutive two-way.

A Different Use Model
From the first radios and cinema screens to the halcyon days of bookshelf speakers in dorm rooms, virtually all 20th-century loudspeakers designed after WW2 were designed to give pleasing, articulate sound in specific environments: public-address systems on ceilings, radios on tables, Klipschorns in corners, and bookshelf speakers just about anywhere we felt like putting them. Then stereo replaced mono, and loudspeakers like the Quad ESL, the Ohm Walsh, the Magneplanars, and stand-mounted minimonitors changed what Croft calls "the use model." Suddenly we had dipoles/bipoles, the Rule of Thirds, soundstages, and room tuning. Today, the last thing any perfectionist audio person wants is a speaker in the corner.

When I spoke with him, Croft told me, "When we first conceived The Clue, we explored all potential ways to create a state-of-the-art device—and to do so in a way that would make it affordable. . . . In comparing our performance targets to the majority of loudspeakers—both cost-no-object and reasonably priced designs—a few things became apparent:

"1) Any system that was going to achieve state-of-the art performance—and do so consistently—would have to take room interaction into account.

"2) Apparently, in an attempt to be all things to all people, the makers of [other] speakers suggest that they can be used effectively in any environment or arrangement that is domestically acceptable.

"To provide us with a significant leg up in maximizing performance, cost-effectively and consistently, we designed for a singular, optimized-use model."

Croft's words made me ask: Do you mean that the era of "I take it home and move it around 'til it sounds pretty good, but never know if it's right" is over?

Set-Up
The Clue comes with a printed setup guide that's very precise about how big the room should be (less than 2500 cubic feet) and where the speakers should be placed in it: on stands 19–22" high—I placed the review samples 21.5" above the floor—and less than 2.5" from the front wall (I put mine less than 2"). So far, this is all kinda "wife friendly" (a term I dislike), but the setup guide continues: "Position the loudspeakers so that the ratio of the distance between them to the distance to your ears at the listening position is approximately 1:1.18." Honey, can I move the couch? I placed The Clues 6' apart; my couch was about 7.5' away, which made a ratio of 1:1.25. Last but not least, The Clues "are designed to be toed-in at an angle of about 22.5 degrees," which I did.

Listening
It was August, so I was using Rogue Audio's cool-running, 100W, class-D Sphinx integrated amplifier with my VPI Traveler turntable and tonearm and Ortofon 2M Black cartridge. I put on Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen's Lost in the Ozone (LP, Paramount PAS 6017), a classic stoner-roadhouse record that's basically an okay studio recording from 1971. "Hot Rod Lincoln" was its memorable jukebox and radio chart-topper, but hidden on side 2 are two well-recorded live numbers: "What's the Matter Now?," and Eddie Cochran and Ned Fairchild's rockabilly masterpiece, "20 Flight Rock," sung by Commander George Frayne and recorded at the Long Branch Saloon, in Berkeley, California.

Via the newly installed Clues, these songs sounded extremely live. Ambient room sound and crowd noises were vividly displayed and highly detailed. Almost instantly, my brain reached for the word transparent. But—this old, familiar record also sounded unequivocally and suspiciously different from how it's sounded through any other system—including the Dynaco ST 120/A25 system I first heard it on in college.

Lars Erickson told me that most other small speakers have a "bump" designed into the upper-bass response, and that The Clue does not. But this record didn't sound merely different—its fundamental tonal character seemed off. I wasn't hearing enough chest, texture, or stoned maleness in the Commander's voice. My kingdom for a bump! For me, the three octaves between 50 and 400Hz are hypercritical in making music sound real and enjoyable—a bump or a dip here can be fatal. Through The Clues, Frayne's voice and piano, and West Virginia Creeper's pedal steel, sounded thin and bleached through precisely that region. The upper midrange and lower treble (near the speaker's crossover frequency of 2.3kHz) sounded smooth and seamless, but maybe I was experiencing some weird comb filtering in the lower midrange/upper bass? It felt like several left-hand keys on Frayne's piano had gone missing.

Thinking I bet this'll sound good, I reached for another college favorite: the soundtrack album for Cabaret (LP, ABC ABCD 752), and put on Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) singing one of her best songs, "Maybe This Time." Just as with Commander Cody, I heard extreme clarity and detail, but Minnelli sounded vapid, bloodless, and unreal. Her voice was just sound—no skin or sin. The lack of weight in the upper bass pretty much eliminated the upright piano and drum kit from the experience.

COMMENTS
Mikeymort's picture

You mention the Dynaco ST120/A-25 combo which is my reference as well. (I still use my A-25's but sold my ST125 years ago.) I have kept the A-25's in service as they have the quality of never being fatiguing. I listen to audio almost constantly, music, news and sports. (I love a baseball game on the radio, or these days, being streamed over the internet) Since you have liked the A-25's, I'm guessing you heard this quality as well.

You never really followed up on on how the Sjöfn was different from the Dynacos, I'm sure it's better on the top-end, I'd be interested in your observations.

Allen Fant's picture

Nicely done! HR-
IME, Creek builds a very nice integrated that does well w/ many loudspeakers, inculding my reference, Thiel CS 2.4 - while the little Creek cannot satisfy the high power/current hungry Thiel spearks, it holds its own regarding "timbre".

dalethorn's picture

I'm not surprised by any of this. They need to optimize at both ends - best cases and worst cases, and it looks like they did only one.

Ishmael's picture

I very much enjoyed the article, well done Herb. I myself own the Clues and am very impressed with them but it was not an easy road to get here. I, like you, tried the suggested configuration for setup. I also rolled through tons of amps and sources. I ended up with good but not great result.

After about 6 months of trying (I was about ready to bail on the whole thing) I ended up trying more placement options in a last ditch effort to make the things work. I went extreme on the wall placement - nearly touching on the one corner, slightly more distance on the other due to toe-in. I also spread them out more than usual which put the left speaker up against a side wall - an unthinkable placement with most any other speaker. Bingo. This did the trick, and I'm getting substantially better sound than any other speaker I've tried in this room (including the LS50 and a bunch more in the $2k-3k range).

In summary, I bought these hoping for easy placement and good sound in my difficult room. I ended up with GREAT sound but it took more work to get there than with any other speakers I've owned, in any other room I've tried.

brian2010's picture

I wonder if this is the same Jim Croft who built transmission line four channel speakers for me in Vancouver, WA in the 1970s? He and a gentleman named Huber were just starting out in the industry and the speakers, hooked up to a Pioneer QX-8000 receiver, Thorens, Nakamichi and Teac sources were awesome. The system is still the best I have ever owned four decades later.

brian2010's picture

It is the same Jim Croft and I can tell you from experience any speaker he is involved with is going to be exceptional. I will soon go to Seattle to personally check these speakers out and you should, too. I doubt he has regressed in 40 years in the business.

SteveD's picture

Jim Croft and Jay (Huber) were 2 of the original 3 proprietors of Definitive Audio in Seattle. Jim is still a corporate officer in the company. I was lucky enough to have these guys point me in a positive direction and guide me through my first purchases of "high end" components back in the mid-seventies. I remember it all quite fondly.

Hi-Reality's picture

Dear Herb,

I use a pair of (the clue) loudspeakers from Erickson/Croft at Sjöfn HiFi driven by a pair of Khartago Mono Extremes from Klaus Bunge at Odyssey Audio as a reference system. They generate a dynamic and transparent experience with an amazing LF response ('Coffee', rather than 'Wine', is perhaps a good word to describe them. I think they will perform even better after I am done with the necessary improvements planned. One of my to-do items is to ask Lars Erickson for some Supra speaker cables and interconnects.

So my question #1: did you sense improvement/added realism after you installed them? this info was unfortunately missing from your report.

My question #2: What were the room size and shape you tested (the clue)'s in? what I can reveal at this point of my project is that these speakers' highest performance level is achieved in smaller and symmetrical rooms (I can't say what shape or how small though :-). So, in that sense they are performing as near-field monitors rather than the usual stand-mounters. And damn good ones!

My question #3: you have listed headphones and headphone amplifier in your equipment list; but there is no mention of them in the review. what was their function?

Thanks for this review. I was very happy to finally see a Stereophile review of Sjöfn HiFi (I had previously asking Stereophile to be kind and review them, see url below for one)

I am looking forward to your feedback.

Regards, Babak
Founder, The Hi-Reality Project,
www.hi-reality.org

http://www.stereophile.com/content/goldenear-technology-aon-2-loudspeaker

corrective_unconscious's picture

I see your base instincts have come to the fore.

danger's picture

HR starts out in his high chair and ends in his slippers with his little dog. Seriously!? I think the review says more about HR than the speakers. Writing is unfocused just like HR's review process. He is all over the place.

argyle_mikey's picture

The company website diverts you to their eBay page. That offers plenty of nice looking cables etc but no sign of this most interesting sounding speaker. I do hope that they didn't stop making it.

Mike

TennesseeTuxedo's picture

As an owner of the clues for many years now I am politely mystified by this review. As a Denver resident and long standing audio nut and therefore a regular attendee at RMAF (Rocky Mountain Audio Fest), I stumbled upon the Sjofn Hi-Fi room many years ago back when they had a product called the Guru, which was an excellent speaker though, alas, out of my price range at the time. I lamented that to Lars Erikson, the man in the chair in socks and sandals at the Sjofn room and he said "Don't give up on us. We're working on that!" And a few years later I was pleased to find the clues in the Sjofn room, and in my price range no less. In addition to being affordable I made numerous trips to many rooms and to come back and compare the clues sound against: NHT, Sonus Faber, Zu Audio, Vandersteen, everything by Andrew Jones, Siggy Linkwitz, Hsu Research, Emotiva, Macintosh (!), Magnepan, Audio Research, German Physiks, YG and I don't remember the others. What impressed me was that the clues sounded as good as the best of those, and much better than the worst of them. So I purchased a pair of the clues and have been QUITE happy with them ever since. I knew they would sound best in a smaller damped room like the hotel room I heard them in. So I paired them with a simple Yamaha Natural Air integrated amp/receiver and a Carver FM tuner and just plunked them on tv tables in the corner of my smallish bedroom. I can tell you Colorado Public Radio and KUVO the jazz Station sounded PHENEMONAL, balanced, rich, and 3-dimensional. And whatever computer audio I was running also sounded excellent (without a DAC). Now I have a tall condo with a tv hutch and wouldn't you know it - the clues are a perfect fit for tv hutch design, now paired with a Denon AV Receiver/Integrated amp (and boat wire tin coated copper as speaker cables - hee hee hee!). But they need lots of clean power and symmetrical geometry in the room. You give them that and they will reward you for years to come, as mine have.

I also have a robust Rotel component system powering Revel M22's, Vandersteen Model 2's and Thiel CS 1.2's all connected via the requisite absurdly expensive cables. All three of those speaker sets sound best in a BIG TALL room. Whereas the Clues rule the SMALL COZY room. So basically if your ceiling is over 12 feet the clues are not going to impress you. If the ceiling is under 12 feet and you put them very close to the wall on stands 22 inches high with a smidge of toe in, then you will be delighted. Music. Home Theater. Whatever.

End.

Of.

Story.

:)

argyle_mikey's picture

Well, Lars responded to my email pretty quickly. The Clues are still available for 999 of your US dollars and he will post to the UK, so I'm going to jump in too. Amp will be a NAD M2, which seems to fit the bill power-wise at least. Should be interesting...

Mike

LostnAmerica's picture

Greetings from across the pond, I am eager to hear if you have received your speakers how your setup is working with your "the clue" speakers and, if any insight you might share in seting up. I thank you in advance...

Cheers,

Chester

LostnAmerica's picture

The latest comment from November of 2016 gave a little hope, they are still available, thats good news for the average consumer. I am taking a "chance" on a used pair of the clue that I found. And are patiently waiting for their arrival this week. I read as many reviews on this speaker as possible and about 90% were positive and encouraging that is why I searched and searched for a used pair. With the exception of the review on Stereophile which had led to (less than favorable) a recommendation which is a little confusing. I understand that the issues of concise placement and possibly the correct power supply (?) and I hope to conquer them, being a novice, this will be fun. I am excited about these little gems and will hope to draw out their full capabilities . Time will tell. Meantime, I hope others will report of their successes and issues with these speakers and look forward to reading and learning. I can understand how the performance of such a diminutive speaker and company could conceivably cause issues with the mainstream and "hi-End" speaker system companies, but really...I would add that I am a subscriber to this magazine and love it. And I would hope another updated "review" by possibly another of these speakers with no malicious intent to the original reviewer/author (however unprofitable as this might be) for the average consumer who might be able to afford the $1000 speaker and might see and eventually hear. Thanks for listening to my tirade...
Cheers

argyle_mikey's picture

The curse of the audiophile - household repair demands for your hard earned cash - delayed my purchase. Sorry. In the meantime, I also think it's time for a reappraisal. I can't think of another component that received such a mixed review but remains in the Stereophile Recommended list. This speaker appears to be a bit of an enigma.

Mike

argyle_mikey's picture

Just bumping this (do people still bump things?) because I’m genuinely curious.

I don’t understand why some long-standing products get re-reviewed every few years - Totem Mani 2 seems to get a full review more often than I change my underpants - yet others are ignored. If ever a product required a follow up, I’d say it was this one.

How about it JA ?

Mike

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